Analysis: Commemorations are often presented as neutral acts of reflecting back but they are always about the interplay between the past and the present, and inherently about having the power to publicly declare an aspect of the past is worthy of remembering.

By Dr Laura McAtackney, Aarhus University

In Ireland, we are nearing the end of an extended 'Decade of Commemorations,' which up until recently has been navigated with relative ease. Room has been made for new additions - such as the class dimensions of the Dublin Lock Out (2013) or the often-bypassed experiences of women - but we have mainly re-affirmed the importance of military events and political resolutions in the so-called ‘revolutionary’ period.

One might expect in moving through such a congested commemorative period that practice would make perfect, and by now there would be no missteps, but such an assumption misunderstands the nature of commemoration.

While superficially it may seem to be about the past – commemorations are often presented as neutral, even mature, acts of reflecting back – they are always about the interplay between the past and the present. They are always political and inherently about having the power to publicly declare an aspect of the past is worthy of remembering.

Rather than focus on the details of the most recent commemoration controversy – in which the President Michael D. Higgins declined an invitation to a ‘Service of Reflection and Hope’ organised by the main Christian Churches in Ireland ‘to mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland’ – this piece will instead reflect more broadly on the politics of commemoration.

It will explore why these cyclical controversies are occurring in Ireland and why they will probably continue to resurface as long as the events being commemorated are contentious and the present is political volatile.

Commemoration is the deliberate act of remembering an aspect of the past, at a particular time and place, as a symbolic act in the present. The particulars of how commemorations unfold rely on re-utilising established symbolism to reference the past while allowing for small innovations to reflect changing meaning in the contemporary moment. This means their meaning can be shaped and added to while appearing to stay fundamentally the same, but symbols are tricky to control.

As they are open to interpretation, symbols are ambiguous and can be misread. Combining symbols together can unintentionally skew how the wider commemorative event is interpreted and how it speaks to the contemporary context.

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From RTÉ Radio One's The History Show, Northern Ireland Centenary Cormac Moore, Laura McAtackney and Éamon Phoenix join Myles to talk about this complex and contested anniversary.

Given the number of variables involved, no two commemorations are the same. While they are intentionally shaped by the decisions of the organisers they can also be impacted by factors outside their control, including how external parties interpret the symbolism in their contemporary context.

The need for external validation of the commemoration opens it up to contestation because in issuing an invitation the organisers are presuming the invitee is receptive to the event and how it has been symbolically framed.

This act places a burden on the invitee to assent, and endorse the event, or decline and be seen to reject it, but it also potentially questions the basis of the commemoration by opening it up to dispute.

Focusing more particular on Ireland, there are even more complicating factors. The North is an enduringly divided, post-conflict society in which there is little agreement about what happened in the past and even less agreement as to how one should remember it in the present, if at all.

Whether one frames 1921 as the centenary of a brutal act of partition or the formation of the fledgling state of Northern Ireland, one cannot pretend commemoration is an apolitical, neutral proposition that is simply about remembering an agreed past as exists elsewhere.

Furthermore, the creation of the Northern Irish state was not actually an event, it was a disruptive, contentious and often violent process that continues to be remembered in different and often contradictory ways by the two traditional communities.

There are few shared narratives, experiences or memories and without the baselines of agreed timelines or interpretations any act of commemoration will be open to contestation.

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From RTÉ Radio One's The History Show, Darach MacDonald and Patrick Mulroe join Myles to talk about the history of Northern Ireland's Border, from partition to present day.

Added to the politics of the past, there is ongoing political instability in the contemporary, primarily provoked by Brexit, which makes commemoration even more problematic. We are five years after the referendum and while the future is unclear, Brexit has undoubtedly changed the contemporary political landscape across the Hiberno-British Isles.

Indeed, the present is in many ways uncomfortably mirroring the past, with the national question appearing more urgent and the border more visible than has been the case in many decades.

Against such a backdrop actively commemorating centenaries in Ireland from 2021 onwards will be fraught, especially in the North. There are very limited possibilities for traditional political commemoration to be uncontentious and even less chance they will enable reconciliation.

Indeed, claiming that commemoration can be a tool of reconciliation without showing how – or explicitly acknowledging the differential memories and legacies of the past - will only act to provoke further rejections and potentially entrench divisions.

Dr Laura McAtackney is an Associate Professor at the Dept of Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Aarhus University.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ